Finding the Glow Within: What Biology and Fiction Writing Have In Common

Biology is the study of life—of finding unusual beauty in the ordinary. So, too, is writing.

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Why do we find glowing lights pretty? From natural occurrences like fireflies and bioluminescent ocean waves, to manmade ones like holiday lights and sprawling evening cityscapes, there is an allure in all the sparkle, glitter, glow. The pull is a gentle one, more of a suggestion than a tug.

In nature, glowing lights are a matter of survival: for fireflies, light attracts mates; for some jellyfish, the lightshows within their tissue-paper membranes shoo off predators; for certain marine bacteria, making light is the ticket to a cozy home within squids and fish, which use that gifted glow to nullify their moonlit shadows or as a means to catch prey. We humans are intrinsically drawn to such luminescence because similarly bright and sparkly things signal a source of water, and the sight still tickles awake some primitive, survivalist corner of ourselves—or so one theory goes. (A hard-wired oooh shiny.) Such biological sorts of glow are part of my day-to-day, as a PhD student studying bioluminescent bacteria.

In both science and in writing, there is no such thing as useless knowledge.

But life-sustaining glow also takes forms beyond the biological, and when I sit down to write stories, it is these variations on the theme that I am most interested in. I am talking about the glow in certain moments and memories, which evoke the same cocoonlike feeling as the light of campfires and of candles crowned in flickering flame. That glow within your chest when you, a reader, sink into a book that hits all the right notes. Or the glow when you, a nostalgic, leaf through old photos, touching your thumb to each bygone era that the passage of years has rendered rosy.

Or when you, a sibling, notice your brother humming along to a song as he looks out the passenger seat window, his chin idly cupped in heel of hand, the humming simply a reflex of happiness within this most mundane of moments with you. I am talking about this kind of undeniable glow, this bioluminescence of the emotional variety, a nebulous thing not quite precisely captured within an English word, perhaps existing on a plane intersecting or tangential to the Danish hygge, or to the Korean bunuigi (vibes).

Some amalgam of safety and wonder, warmth and sudden weightlessness, a sense that this is all fleeting as though it were brief happiness yet somehow also longer-lived as though it were true contentment, plus some amnesia to top it all off—because within that sheltered amnion of glow, you briefly forget that anything beyond exists. When we talk about the all-American pursuit of happiness, isn’t it this kind of glow that we are really in pursuit of? This miraculous little pulse of warmth somewhere in the chest in some cavity that’s not strictly biological, not exactly physical, yet somehow capable of feeling like it’s bursting at its seams?

bioluminescence  noun       the emission of light by living organisms.

I am in search of this emission of light when I write stories, like many writers. How does one create bioluminescence in writing?

A possible answer to the elusive question comes from the biology lab. When it comes to cellular mysteries, sometimes the best way to find an answer to a question is by asking alternative questions that probe from oblique angles, and then by looking for indirect readouts of the original phenomenon. To find glow in writing, too, I ask such sidelong questions. How do we come to terms with the unknown? What is identity, when all of our identities are always in a state of flux? And when these incorporeal multitudes that define us are shattered, by nature of existence in an irrational world, how are they put back together? Where can we find that mysterious glue even in the most unexpected of places? 

The percolation of such questions through my last year of undergrad, the first year of the pandemic, pooled into the shape of We Carry the Sea in Our Hands. I found that when I ask such questions over and over, look at them from here and there, sometimes I get lucky and notice a parallax, a glow. Sometimes, it just takes a particular angle of view to see it. A trick of the light, like most blues in nature. Aren’t we all just chasing will-o’-the-wisps, anyways?

Perhaps this is why in both science and in writing, there is no such thing as useless knowledge. Knowledge gained simply as a function of curiosity seems to have an inherent funky viewing angle. Scientists-in-training are often encouraged to attend seminars in other departments, because maybe a molecular biologist at a mechanical engineering talk will pick up an odd snippet of information or a way of thinking that sparks a new idea. Writers of fiction, too, cannot predict when learning some very specific, random fact might come in handy in a story—the oily flammability of birch bark, the difference between contact calls and alarm calls of songbirds, the behavior of tin buttons in cold temperatures, the vagaries of usefulness.

Read widely and read often: a phrase heard so often by both novice scientists and writers that they share the same reflex tickle in the head upon hearing it—part agreement and part annoyance. Poke your nose into other genres, we’re told. Walk into something new, leave behind all your presuppositions, and simply observe how things are done, so we’re told. And by doing so, perhaps we will chance upon a new angle from which to approach our work, to search for glow in an unexpected corner. I think this is what Abraham Flexner was talking about in his essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”

The process of story-writing and of scientific research are often not so dissimilar. People find reflected pieces of themselves in stories, both in reading them and in writing them, and can move these likenesses around, like an abacus, to try to comprehend the meaning of things that happened or are happening or will happen. I wonder if this is not what biology is, as well? To me it seems an echo, moving around questions and data points to find within them an abstraction of truth.

A shortcut to finding glow when writing, for me, is going to the lab. Or rather, thinking about biological phenomena, which the lab is conducive to. There is so much to marvel at within a single cell, the vast knowns and vaster unknowns of something so small, something so delicately complex yet surprisingly robust, such elegant works of self-contained art as they are. These are landscapes filled with tiny intricacies that float and spin and dance, buoyed by molecular ferries and electron shuttles, everything timed and positioned just so after millennia inside the dollhouse of evolution.

How brief each motion can be, yet how impactful within a whole undulating sea of movements! How precisely complex a cell is, how easily it stirs up wanderlust and vertigo—so much so that you wonder how anyone could possibly probe and poke at its choreographies with any sensitivity, like trying to cut slices out of a cake using just one’s bare fingers.

Questions without clear answers nor endpoints are both the nature and point of it all.

Thinking of biology as the wonder that it is (or reminding myself of this, when the realities of routine lab-work fog up the nice view) creates an approximation of glow for me. If I would like to write, it is often simply a matter of transferring that nascent light into the written word. (Not unlike how FRET works, for the scientists out there.)

Perhaps above all, scientific research and fiction-writing are most synergistic in their appreciation of uncertainty. Nothing is fact, revisiting questions is the norm. Like ocean waves, echoing up and down the shore, each sandy imprint a likeness of its predecessors but not quite the same. It is part of why scientists and writers are blessed or cursed—take your pick—with the ever-flowing stream of “What am I doing?”, “Am I doing anything right?”, “Do I know anything at all? And if so, how do I know?”

Whether I choose to comfort myself by rationalizing this as a readout of scientific rigor, as the proper level of doubt and questioning with which I should approach my science, or choose to call it a little crisis de rigueur to work out with either a philosopher or a therapist—or instead choose, as is often simplest, to just slap on the label of impostor syndrome like it’s one of those “Hello, my name is” stickers at a child’s birthday party—what seems true is that questions without clear answers nor endpoints are both the nature and point of it all. To borrow a phrase that one of my PhD advisors likes to say: “it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” This seems to be the cartilaginous stuff that stretches between science and writing and renders them two organ systems within the same body. In my life, writing and biology are necessarily symbiotic.

Four years ago, I wrote in my PhD program applications about how my childhood writing hobby metamorphosed into an interest in science. All I wrote then of the newer, reverse relationship, of how science in turn came to give life to my writing, was that “biological research seeks out what makes life move, and creative writing searches for why that is meaningful to people and society.” Microscope and macroscope, I think. This essay is my addendum—but I wonder, how might all this change in the coming years, this polaroid of opinions and fumbles? We become the stories we tell ourselves.

In recent months I have felt adrift between worlds, unable to say “I’m a writer” nor “I’m a scientist” without feeling like I am wearing ill-fitting clothes. But I do recognize that living unmoored between questioned identities that keep shifting like refracted light—“writing-dabbler?”, “science-dabbler?”—has its own value, if viewed from a particular angle. To make a home for myself within this interstitial space is to ask many questions and to enjoy the privilege of not yet knowing many answers (which I think is this: it is easier to learn something stunningly fascinating when you simply have so much to learn in the first place). This, too, is a state that I am learning how to find glow within.


we carry the sea in our hands

We Carry the Sea in Our Hands by Janie Kim is available from Alcove Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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